A City that Takes its Planning Seriously (or Not)

Portland is a city that's often better known by the representations of it—like the television show Portlandia—than as an actual working city.

3 minute read

February 21, 2014, 8:26 AM PST

By Jess Zimbabwe @jzimbabwe

Portland is a city that's often better known by the representations of itlike the television show Portlandia—than as an actual working, breathing city, but as Winston Churchill noted, "a joke is a very serious thing." The people of Portland seem to acknowledge that even the most far-fetched representations of their city and its citizens have kernels of truth packed within them. Of course, even Portland, rife with a highly educated population that is sophisticated in all debates about planning policy, suffers from the same battles with NIMBYs and the usual antagonisms of a pro-development v. pro-environment debate. But it also has a regular live, on-stage discussion event on the topic of planning. That takes place in a jazz club. And when I attended last week, it was packed: 

the crowd at the February 2014 Bright Lights

Bright Lights describes itself on its Facebook Page as: 

Bright Lights has brought many of Portland's most dynamic leaders to stage to not only talk about issues facing the city but to reveal a little of themselves. The relaxed setting of Portland's leading jazz bar allows the audience to grab a drink and a bite and learn more about the city and the people shaping it. The question-and-answer format led by one of Portland's leading journalists helps get past the sound bytes and packaged messages. The audience is welcome to jump in, too.

Since commencing in February, 2008, Bright Lights has hosted guests as Neal Keny Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps; Congressman Earl Blumenauer; then-Metro president David Bragdon; Erin Flynn, the city's director of economic development; leading structural engineer Ann Monier; advertising guru Dan Wieden; and many others. Bright Lights has also hosted guests who are shaping cities elsewhere: Tim Stonor of the groundbreaking London planning firm, Space Syntax; renowned New York exhibition designer Ed Schlossberg; and legendary Houston artist/activist Rick Lowe. As well, Bright Lights has hosted political debates for the offices of mayor and Metro president and brought leaders together to tackle issues such as the Columbia River Crossing and the Rose Quarter redevelopment

We were there as a part of the ULI Rose Center's week-long Study Panel of the City through the Daniel Rose Fellowship. Through that program, Mayor Charlie Hales asked the Rose Center to take a look at promoting the city's Central Eastside as a 21st century employment center. The Bright Lights event kicked off the beginning of that week, and ULI CEO Patrick Phillips was the guest. Phillips spoke about a wide range of topics, from the changing expectations of the workplace, to demographic shifts and the impact of student debt on millennials' financial decision-making. 

The host of Bright Lights is Randy Gragg, editor in chief of Portland Monthly magazine. Although the event seems to change locations occasionally, it is regularly hosted at Jimmy Mak's a hip and decidedly un-swish kind of jazz lounge that is, of course, right across from a streetcar stop. The February 2014 event attracted a crowd of about a hundred people.  

I know that San Francisco has a monthly "Nerd Nite" event that often focuses on issues of urbanism, the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago hosts a regular "Urban Think and Drink" event, and Public Workshop holds regular "Urban Geek Drinks" soirees in Philly. What other social events does your city organize around these topics? And has our entire profession become a spoof from an episode of Portlandia that we enjoy getting together and spending our drinking time talking about this stuff? 

Learn more about the ULI Rose Center's work in Portland or read coverage of it in the Portland Oregonian or the Portland Daily Journal of Commerce

Jess Zimbabwe

Jess Zimbabwe is the Principal of Plot Strategies. She served until recently for ten years as the founding Director of the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership—a partnership the National League of Cities (NLC) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The Center’s flagship program was the Daniel Rose Fellowship, which brought the mayors and senior leadership teams of 4 cities together for a year-long program of learning from land use experts, technical assistance, study tours, leadership development, and peer-to-peer exchange.

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